Monday, July 21, 2008


Reflecting on the recent Fiji Human Rights Commission’s report on the media in Fiji by Mr. James Anthony, in the context of our continuing socio-political crisis under the current military regime, a worrying pattern seems to be establishing itself. The Media is often called the “4th Estate” which refers to the role of the Media as the guardian of the public interest and the watchdog of the activities of the Government. The Media in this role of the 4th Estate is an important component of the checks and balances which are an integral part of modern democracy. But if the Media is the 4th Estate, what or who are the other 3 Estates?

The Estates General, originally established in France as the états généraux. First established in 1302, the Estates-General was a French legislative body comprising members of the three groups, or estates, of French society: nobility, clergy, and commoners. This model and variations of it was used in much of Europe from the 14th to 18th and 19th Century.

The following explanation takes into account the role of the Estates General in the British bicameral Parliament on which Fiji’s democratic structure is based.

The 1st Estate, known in early British Parliament as the Lords Spiritual were made up of the Clergy (Ministers of Religion). Senior clergy such as bishops held membership in the British House of Lords, the equivalent of Fiji’s Senate in the House of Representatives.

The 2nd Estate, known as the Lords Temporal was made up of the Aristocracy were titled peers; High Chiefs in our context, who held hereditary membership in the House of Lords (Fiji: Senate).

The 3rd Estate refered to the elected commoners; the masses, the workers; who were Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, which in our context is House of Representatives.

The Estates General bears striking resemblance to the “Three Legged Stool”(of Ratu Sir Lalabalavu Sukuna) or the “Trinitarian Solemnity” (of Rev. Dr Ilaitia S. Tuwere) of Lotu, Vanua and Matanitu.

Obviously the 4th Estate, the Media was missing from the equation back in the 18th Century and so it is only speculation as too what checks and balances it could have played during the failure of the Estates General, the ensuring French Revolution and the rise of dictator cum emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. However, even within the late 20th and early 21st Centuries one can still discern the pattern of oppression of the media by regimes around the world that use subterfuge to achieve its means and find a probing free press a major obstacle to achieving its intentions.

The killing of over a dozen journalists since former KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000 and the process of squeezing critical journalism out of the public space in Russia through censorship and restrictive editorial control bears witness to the lengths governments are willing to go to muzzle the media. Reporters Without Borders describes the “revolutionary success” of Cuba under former leader Fidel Castro as ‘one of the worst predators of press freedom.’ The Cuban constitution states that. “Citizens recognize freedom of speech and press conform to the needs of the state.” According to reports, between 2003 and 2005 approximately 32 reporters had been jailed after being found guilty of “working with a foreign power to undermine the government,” which carries sentences up to approximately 30 years in jail.

Without a vibrant, free media, the very real danger exists of a society where the only version of events available to us will be the “official” version, given by the government.

If we look back on the way that events have unfolded over the last 15 months, it is possible to see that a systematic dismantling of these four Estates is underway. The conflict between the Military Junta and the Methodist Church, and the inability of the Fiji Council of Churches or the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji to offer any meaningful resolution to this tension, is symptomatic of the attempts to remove the influence of the Church (the 1st Estate) in the political life of its people.

Similarly, the restructuring of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga / Great Council of Chiefs is an attempt manipulate or reduce the role of the hereditary aristocracy (the 2nd Estate) of Fiji in the governance of this nation.

The Military Coup of December 2006 was a direct assault on the Senate and House of Representatives (the 3rd Estate).

This new attack on the 4th Estate, one of the key cogs in the mechanism of modern democracy, seen in the light of the attacks on the other three Estates, will do nothing for building a better Fiji. Even the previous/ousted government undertook an inquiry into the media. Reports and recommendations were made and a bill was drafted, including calls for a broadcasting standards authority and a revamping of the Fiji Media Council. The “Media Bill” received widespread opposition from many sections of society, who value independent and free media, and was eventually shelved.

It will be interesting, to say the least, given that the regime has stated that not all reports are adopted, which of its increasingly commissioned reports and recommendations will be adopted and implemented. That should clearly show whether those in power are focusing on building a better Fiji or merely dismantling parts of the Fiji that it feels threatened and challenged by. It will help those of us who call Fiji home decide whether the ‘End justifies the Means,’ or whether results gained by anguish and peril do justice to the means by which they were achieved.

(Note: this article was kindly published by the Fiji Times in June, 2008 - I think. I wasn't blacklisted by Ministry of Defence / Immigration ... )

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